New Research Shows The Messenger Outweighs The Message


It doesn’t matter how great your product is; if consumers dislike its personality, its presentation or its presenters, no way are they going to buy it. That’s what new research reported October 5 strongly suggests.

The research itself was about politics, not consumer products, but it’s obvious how the findings carry over.

The research

Nadia Y. Bashir, Penelope Lockwood, Alison L. Chasteen, Daniel Nadoiny and Indra Noyes, of Canada’s University of Toronto and University of Waterloo, conducted a series of studies and published their results in the latest issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.

But while the research itself is Canadian, most subjects (86 percent) were American.

In it, the researchers wanted to find out how people’s behavior regarding social causes was affected by their views of a cause’s activists. The answer, in a word: negatively.

Three pilot studies led to this finding.

The first, involving 228 Americans recruited through Mechanical Turk – Amazon’s service that connects people who want tasks done with people willing to do them for pennies – asked respondents to describe environmentalists and feminists. The descriptions were “overwhelmingly negative.” Participants described “typical environmentalists” as “tree-huggers” and “hippies.” But that was high praise compared to their descriptions of “typical feminists” – as “man-hating” and “unhygienic,” among other choice adjectives.

The second pilot study asked 17 male and 45 female Canadian undergraduates how likely they’d be to make friends with an activist who engaged in one of several different cause-related activities. And – surprise, surprise – most would shun activists who staged protest rallies, for example, but wouldn’t mind hanging out with activists who used “nonabrasive and mainstream methods” – say, fundraising social events.

In the third study, 140 Americans (again, self-selected through Mechanical Turk) read an article about climate change and “the need for individuals to adopt sustainable lifestyles.” Though the article all 140 read was the same, the author’s profile wasn’t:

  • For one-third of the participants, the bio described a “stereotypical environmentalist” and included statements such as “I hold rallies outside chemical research labs.”
  • Another third got the article with a profile describing “an atypical, less-abrasive environmentalist (‘I’m involved in organizing social events … to raise money for grassroots-level environmental organizations’).”
  • For the third third, the profile said nothing at all about environmental activism, one way or the other.

When participants were asked whether the article inspired them to do more recycling or other enviro-friendly things, the first version of the article – with the “demonstrations outside chemical labs” profile made readers want to do less. “Participants were less motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviors when these behaviors were advocated by the ‘typical’ environmentalist, rather than by the ‘atypical’ environmentalist or the undefined target,” the researchers concluded.

The findings

As the research paper’s title suggests, activists have a “negative impact”on the causes they’re working for, because the “negative stereotypes” they trigger in the people they’re working to win over “reduce social change influence.”

Or, as Pacific Standard magazine put it in more understandable English, “people hold negative views of political and social activists, and their unwillingness to associate with such people dampens the likelihood of changing their behavior.”

Participants held strongly negative stereotypes about such activists, and those feelings reduced their willingness “to adopt the behaviors that these activities promoted”…This surprisingly cruel caricaturing, the researchers conclude, plays “a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

This is, needless to say, frustrating news for activists, and not just the ones mentioned here. The researchers suggest this dynamic may very well apply across the board, such as to activities advocating gay rights or Wall Street reform.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.

“Furthermore, this tendency to associate activists with negative stereotypes and perceive them as people with whom it would be unpleasant to affiliate reduces individuals’ motivation to adopt the pro-change behaviors that activists advocate.”

The lesson for advertisers

The researchers conclude that it’s important to “[r]ealize that if people find you off-putting, they’re not going to listen to your message. As Bashir and her colleagues note, potential converts to your cause ‘may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable.'”

Change “converts to your cause” to “buyers of your brand,” and there’s an important lesson in this. The lesson’s  not important just for feminists and environmentalists. It’s not important just for political movements, though we saw how most Americans’ repulsion over Occupy Wall Street’s carryings-on carried over the the movement’s message, whatever that was.

It’s an important lesson for anyone who has anything to sell, whether in the marketplace of goods and services or the marketplace of ideas.

And that lesson is that people don’t like to buy from people they don’t like, regardless of what those unlikeable people may be selling. You could be selling the greatest thing in the world and the lowest price imaginable and have the world’s greatest message, but if your target audience can’t stand the way your products and your message are presented – or the presenter him- or herself – they’re just going to tune you out and buy from your competitors.

That’s why, for example, Alec Baldwin’s obnoxiously boorish, self-centered personality works well for his “30 Rock” role, but not so great for the Capital One commercials that feature him.

And why people hate to buy cars from dealerships with those earsplittingly loud, screaming radio or television commercials.

As far as consumers are concerned, brand personality outweighs product features.

You spend a lot of time and money developing products and services consumers will want. Don’t blow the investment by having it all ride on a message and/or presenter whose very style alienates the people you’re trying to sell to.

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